I was not excited when the Thrashers invited Maxim Afinogenov to NHL Camp on a try out contract. When he was a Buffalo Sabre, I always found "Mad Max" extremely frustrating to watch. He had all the tools to be a superstar--great acceleration, amazing stickhandling, a hard shot--but the whole package never exceeded the sum of its parts. He would charge down the ice and pull fans out of their seats, but fail to convert the opportunity. My conclusion was "a lot of sizzle, not enough steak."
But lately, Afinogenov has been cashing in more of those golden opportunities. He has gone from "talent tease" to "productive teammate" and the Thrashers are picking up more standing points because of it. Last night he scored the tying goal with the goalie pulled--this earned the Thrashers a big point in the standings.
Since Kovalchuk's return from his foot injury, the chemistry on the Max-Antro-Kovy line has been very good. Kovalchuk and Afinogenov are the sizzle with their speed and passing, and Antropov is the defensive conscious and the brute who forces turnovers and extends the life of shifts in the offensive zone. Perhaps, more importantly, Captain Kovalchuk really trusts Afinogenov and shows no hesitation to share the puck with him. Watch the way Kovalchuk mobs Afinogenov after his game tying goal last night--it starts looking like a football scrum towards the end.
Afinogenov's 17 points in 17 games is a terrific return on a very modest investment in player salary. The Thrashers have greatly increased team payroll this year, but they still trail behind many of the big spenders. It is crucial for the Thrashers to get a more for their money--and the production from Max has them on the road to being a quality club in the mix for a playoff berth.
I was already thinking about writing about Max and was listening to the post-game show on the radio while driving home. Dan Kamal and Darren Eliot made a great point that the credit goes not only to the player, but also to the GM for seizing the opportunity to sign Afinogenov, and Coach Anderson who is getting the most out of Max without obsessing over his faults. Both Slava Kozlov and Maxim Afinogenov appear to have flourished after escaping Buffalo's Lindy Ruff. To be fair Coach Anderson was not successful in working with Jason Williams or getting the most out of Erik Christensen, but he is doing well with Maxim Afinogenov, Rich Peverley and Mark Popovic thus far.
In my opinion, Maxim has taken his game to another level the last two weeks. He is displaying more confidence, making the smart play much more often and limiting turnovers. The big question is whether this is a just a hot streak--or can Afinogenov sustain this over an extended stretch this season?